Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sunset Boulevard

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small." -Norma Desmond

This evening I had the pleasure of watching Sunset Boulevard on the big screen with some friends. Our art museum holds these wonderful Friday night showings of movies. I would go every Friday if life allowed.

I love old movies. In some ways, I think Norma was right. There's something about the older movies. Something powerful that newer movies don't generally have. I don't know exactly what it is, but older movies move me and affect me differently. Maybe it's that the years have let the schlock fall by the wayside, so the movies that have survived to be shown are real jewels. Maybe it's the black and white. Maybe it was the writing. Maybe it was the types of stories being told. Maybe it was the acting.  As Norma said: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

If you've never seen this film, you should. There are few near-perfect movies in this world. But this is one. (Another is Casablanca). The main three characters: Norma Desmond played by Gloria Swanson, Joe Gillis played by William Holden and Max Von Mayerling played by Erich von Stroheim were all so spot on. Not a false moment. The curator told us in her talk about the other actors considered for the roles of Norma and Joe, but now it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles, so entwined have they become with these performers.

In fact, there was (I presume and imagine) some element of personal truth for the actors in these roles, and I wonder if that is where the strength of performance comes from. Gloria Swanson had indeed been a silent film star, and, like many women of Hollywood, knew how unkind the industry was about aging. She is undeniably beautiful. Even as she holds her head at that impossible, cockeyed angle that she invented for the character, she is lovely.

But, as the recent Oscars showed us with catty and harsh comments about Kim Novak and Liza Minelli and even Matthew McConaughey's mother, Hollywood is very uncomfortable with aging in women, regardless of whether you age "gracefully" and "naturally" or fight the process tooth and nail. Gloria Swanson tortures herself to try to recapture her younger face. If the story were written now, she'd probably have botox and surgery.

I'm not in Hollywood, obviously, but even ordinary women feel the sting of the shift in the way the world treats you when you are considered past your sell-by date. Sexuality, we're told, is for the young, slender and beautiful. There's a little longer window these days, for the MILF . . . but even that role is one you can play only briefly, when you still are guessed as too young to have a child as old as you do. G-d forbid you should look your age.  Hollywood isn't the only place in the United States that doesn't know what to do with a woman old enough to have lines and sag, but who hasn't resigned herself to an asexual invisibility either. It was Joe who said it best: "There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you're trying to be twenty-five."

William Holden may have understood Joe pretty well, too. His alcoholism was affecting his looks. The "shine" was off him. He was too old to be the golden boy anymore.  Holden did a beautiful job with the nonverbal parts of this role. Every time Holden's Joe accepted money or gifts from Norma, a part of him died. He hated himself for being kept, and hating himself made him want to be cruel. Even when he told the young woman he was falling in love with the truth of his life as Norma's kept man, there was so much subtext in each line and each movement. He conveyed the pain and anger of his own lost chance at happiness intermixed with a feeling of worthlessness that meant he didn't deserve that chance in the first place. He sent her away because he loved her enough to save her from himself.

I don't know anything about the actor who played Max, but he, too, was amazing. His quiet protection of Norma, his acceptance of his responsibility for what became of her. The torch he still carried after all these years.

What a tragic love story! No one loves the right person. Max loves Norma. Norma loves Joe. Joe loves Betty. Artie loves Betty. Betty loves Joe. Everyone is reaching for someone who doesn't love them back. Or, in the case of Betty and Joe, the love was poisoned before it could grow by the circumstances of its birth--infidelity and deception.

Whew! Makes me glad I'm in no danger of becoming famous. I'd end up face-down in the swimming pool for sure.

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